Hilmes’ biography should probably not be one’s starting place to get to know Alma Mahler Werfel (as it was mine). While his primary research bona fides are compelling – he goes to great pains to describe just how much time and effort he expended with Alma’s previously-unmined papers and other effects at the University of Pennsylvania – his actual portrait of his subject falls flat.
It’s not because Hilmes paints Alma as a vapid, narcissistic, casually anti-Semitic, and essentially despicable person – she probably was – but rather that he gives almost no indication what this jaw-dropping succession of truly great artists saw in her as a companion. Why did Klimt, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Kokoschka, Gropius, Werfel, and so many others fall so hard for her? Hilmes barely hints at it.
Hilmes is very concerned about getting to the truth of Alma’s influence on Werfel’s rumored(?) deathbed conversion to Catholicism. It was difficult for me to follow the twists and turns, or even understand why this particular event merited such attention, but I think Hilmes concludes there’s not evidence to substantiate whether the conversion occurred or not. (Perhaps the frequent but generally overlookable lapses in translation made it harder to grasp?)
I did enjoy the small portraits of Austro-Germanic émigré domestic life in Los Angeles – it’s somehow charming to see Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Bruno Walter, Korngold, and others complaining about the food at each other’s homes. And there’s some Schadenfreude in seeing Alma hocking rare Bruckner scores and the like. But on the whole Hilmes’ biography is likely better at rounding out a picture of his subject than providing the basis for one. He unfortunately leaves it to other biographers to describe how Alma Mahler compelled so many great men to spend so much time with her.